ZAWIYA, Libya (AP) — Hundreds of armed anti-government forces backed by rebel troops who control the city closest to the capital Tripoli prepared Sunday to repel an expected offensive by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi surrounding Zawiya.
An Associated Press reporter who reached Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, confirmed the anti-government rebels are in control of the center of the city of 200,000. They have army tanks and anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks deployed. But on the outskirts, they are surrounded by pro-Gaddafi forces, also backed by tanks and anti-aircraft guns.
There were at least six checkpoints controlled by troops loyal to Gaddafi on the road from Tripoli to Zawiya. Each checkpoint was reinforced by at least one tank, and the troops concealed their faces with scarves.
Gaddafi has launched by far the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of anti-regime uprising sweeping the Arab world. The United States, Britain and the U.N. Security Council all imposed sanctions on Libya over the weekend. And President Barack Obama said it is time for Gaddafi to go.
Zawiya, a key city close to an oil port and refineries, is the nearest population center to Tripoli to fall into the opposition hands. Police stations and government offices inside the city have been torched and anti-Gaddafi graffiti was everywhere. Many buildings are pockmarked by bullets.
"Gaddafi Out," chanted hundreds in the city center. The charred skeletons of many cars littered the city and most streets were blocked by palm tree trunks or metal barricades. "Free, Free Libya," chanted members of the anti-government forces at the city center.
"Down with Gaddafi, the mass murderer," read graffiti scrawled in the city. An effigy of Gaddafi hung from a light pole in the city's main square. On its chest the words "Execute Gaddafi" were emblazoned.
The square has now become the burial place of six of 11 rebels killed by pro-Gaddafi forces Thursday when they attacked the area to try and dislodge them. Residents reported several skirmishes between the two sides since Thursday.
"We are all wanted," said one rebel at the square who did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals. "Zawiya in our hands is a direct threat to Tripoli."
Rebels from the town and army forces who defected from the regime to join them largely consolidated control of the town on Feb. 24, after an army unit that remained loyal to Gaddafi opened fire on a mosque where residents – some armed with hunting rifles for protection – had been holding a sit-in.
Before Zawiya fell to rebel forces, Gaddafi scolded the city residents on Thursday.
"Shame on you, people of Zawiya. Control your children," he said. "They are loyal to bin Laden," he said of those involved in the uprising. "What do you have to do with bin Laden, people of Zawiya? They are exploiting young people ... I insist it is bin Laden."
On Feb. 24, local forces repelled an attempt by militiamen and pro-Gaddafi troops to take back the town.
Later, Gaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam, acknowledged to foreign journalists in Tripoli that there were "two minor problems" in Misrata and Zawiya. There, he said, "we are dealing with terrorist people," but he hoped to reach a peaceful settlement with them.
Gaddafi loyalists remain in control of nearby Tripoli, which was reported to be quiet Sunday, with most stores closed and long lines outside the few banks open for business.
City residents thronged the banks after state TV and SMS messages announced in the past few days that each family would receive 500 Libyan dinars (about $400), plus the equivalent of about $100 credit for phone service. State TV said families also will be entitled to 60,000 Libyan dinars (about $49,000) in interest-free loans to buy apartments.
03/11/2011 6:31 PM EST
U.S. Extends Sanctions On Libya
Reports the AP:
The Obama administration extended its Libya sanctions to more Gadhafi family members and close advisers on Thursday, blacklisting business with the Libyan leader's wife, four of his children and his chief of military intelligence.
The Treasury Department froze the assets of nine Libyans in all as part of the strategy to peel off Moammar Gadhafi's closest advisers while punishing those who remain loyal to the regime even as it commits human rights violations.
The sanctions come on top of those previously announced by the administration, which accounted for $32 billion in Libyan government assets blocked in the United States.
03/11/2011 5:33 PM EST
Sarkozy Calls For Air Strikes If Gaddafi Attacks Civilians
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for airstrikes against Gaddafi forces if the leader attacks civilians. According to the Guardian:
Nicolas Sarkozy has called for targeted air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime if his forces use chemical weapons or launch air strikes against civilians.
As the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, warned that a no-fly zone could risk civilian lives in Libya, the French president told an emergency EU summit in Brussels that air strikes may soon be justified.
"The strikes would be solely of a defensive nature if Mr Gaddafi makes use of chemical weapons or air strikes against non-violent protesters," Sarkozy said. The French president qualified his remarks by saying he had many reservations about military intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs".
03/11/2011 5:06 PM EST
Dutch Helicopter Crew Freed
A Dutch helicopter crew taken captive in Libya has been freed and sent to Greece. The BBC is reporting:
The two men and one woman arrived in Athens on a Greek military transport plane hours after a son of Muammar Gaddafi announced their release.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said Libya would hold on to the crew's Lynx helicopter.
The woman pilot, Yvonne Niersman, took part in a mission last year to free a German ship from Somali pirates.
Ms Niersman and her fellow crew members were captured in Libya after flying in from the Dutch warship Tromp, anchored off the coast.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 4:43 PM EST
McCain Praises Moroccan King
Senator John McCain praised Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his pledge to introduce democratic reforms. According to the AFP:
"This new reform agenda builds on the king's long-standing commitment to lead Morocco to a future of reform and modernization, and it could ensure that the Kingdom of Morocco will continue to stand as a positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa," said McCain.
03/11/2011 3:40 PM EST
Gaddafi Offers Amnesty To Rebels
Reuters is reporting that Gaddafi is now offering to offer amnesty to those rebels who lay own arms.
03/11/2011 3:28 PM EST
2 Protesters Killed In Tunisia
The AP reports:
Tunisia's Interior Ministry says a new eruption of violence between police and protesters has killed two people and injured 20.
The ministry says on its Facebook page that police fired tear gas and demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs.
The statement says two protesters were killed in the incident in Metlaoui, a mining town in the center of the Mediterranean country.
The violence comes as Tunisia's interim government is trying to restore stability after deadly protests that drove out longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That prompted uprisings around the Arab world.
03/11/2011 2:39 PM EST
Berlusconi Says Hardline With Gaddafi A Mistake
Berlusconi is saying that the West may have made a mistake by taking a hardline against Gaddafi, which may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner. Reports Reuters:
The hardline stance taken by major powers against Muammar Gaddafi may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner and prevented a quiet exit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday. Speaking after a special meeting of EU leaders, Berlusconi, one of Gaddafi's closest friends in Europe until the current upheaval, said the chances of persuading him to give up power voluntarily now appeared to have disappeared.
"Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don't think anyone can make him change his mind," he told reporters.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 2:16 PM EST
Who Are The Libyan Rebels?
The AP is reporting that the rebels fighting Gaddafi forces are amateurs, but deeply committed to the cause:
Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya since long before the 25-year-old was born, and he hates the dictator enough to risk his life by fighting for the ragtag rebel force battling government troops along a desolate highway on the North African country's Mediterranean coast.
"I will fight forever. I will die or win, like Omar Mukhtar," said Salem, invoking the legendary Libyan hero who fought Italian occupiers in the 1930s, was ultimately executed, and has become a symbol for the new revolutionaries.
The front-line force trying to advance toward Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli is surprisingly small. Not counting supporters who bolster them in the towns along their path, it is estimated at 1,500 at most — Libyans from all walks of life, from students and coffeeshop owners to businessmen who picked up whatever weapons they could and joined the fight. No one seems to know their full size, and they could be picking up new members all the time.
Its ramshackle nature explains the dramatic lurches the fighting has taken. Last week, they took control over a stretch of Mediterranean coastal land that included major oil installations in the ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf. They charged enthusiastically further west, reaching within a few dozen miles of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a bastion of support for the leader of 41 years.
03/11/2011 1:03 PM EST
Gaddafi Forces Show Signs Of Victory
Reports the AP:
Moammar Gadhafi's regime has gained momentum with the capture of a key city near Tripoli after days of fierce fighting with rebels.
The battle for Zawiya has emerged as a key test in the government's ability to maintain its hold on the Libyan capital and surrounding areas.
The government had claimed victory on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.
An Associated Press reporter, who was escorted with other journalists into the city on Friday, says the main square that had been the center of resistance is clearly in government control.
03/11/2011 12:47 PM EST
Obama On Libya
Obama noted all of the sanctions and property seizures that have already been implemented against Gaddafi, saying, "Across the board, we are tightening the noose on Gaddafi." He says that NATO is discussing potential military actions in Libya, including a no-fly zone, and will meet on Tuesday. He said that a position will be created for a liaison to speak with Libyan opposition groups. He said that the international community had moved quickly to isolate Gaddafi.
Obama said that no options have been taken off the table so far. In response to a question about whether it would ever be acceptable to the U.S. for Gaddafi to stay in power, Obama stated that "it is in the U.S.' interest and the interest of the Libyan people for Gaddafi to leave." He added, however, that when making a decision to engage militarily, he would weigh the "costs and benefits."
(This version CORRECTS Corrects dates and days of the week in paragrahs 11, 13. AP Video.)